Thursday, March 15, 2012

Our Mutual Friend: Three of Four Novels

Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend is a long book. The Project Gutenberg edition is (less the pg.org "small print" &cet) 326,867 words. That's the equivalent of four of my novels. I was thinking this morning, while reading into Book IV on the omnibus, that I was pretty far along with Mr Dickens and I'd not have him much longer. Now I realize that I've still got about 86,000 words ahead of me, which is, as I say, the equivalent of an entire novel. Which is a comfort, because Out Mutual Friend, despite the very stressful turns taken in this third act of the story, is a nice place to hang about in. The Golden Dustman has reached a low point, though I'm sure he can go yet lower in chapters to come, poor idiot.

In my last scattershot post, I noted that Dickens indulges often in cheap sentiment. At the same time, what keeps me reading (aside from the wonderfully inventive way he has with language and that is a pure joy for this reader) is the way Dickens is unsentimental. His people are thoughtless, cruel, arrogant, selfish people as much as they're pure of heart and good good good. His best characters, of course, are those who are both good and weak. Possibly I only think that because it mirrors my Western Christian upbringing, wherein humanity is assumed to be good but weak. I don't know. I've never thought about that before, but it's an interesting thought that's doubtless been explored already by smarter folk than me. I shall now wonder about my own novels and the relationship between my characters and the lives of the saints. Because I'll bet there's something there. But I digress.

Dickens' folks are being pressed hard by Dickens' plot (which is what plots are for, if you were wondering) and are revealing themselves as pretty much normal humans (which is what literature is for, if you were wondering), which means that things are getting bad for some characters, and other characters are plotting to make things worse. Just like real life, hey?

So this is a great long novel, twice as long as Moby-Dick. For months after finishing the Melville, I wished I was still reading it. I wonder if I'll miss Dickens and his London in the same way. Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, novels I've read in the last couple of years, didn't hang on to me, but Our Mutual Friend is a much better book than either of those novels. It's richer, with more depth and a physical reality--a tactile quality--I've not encountered in any of his other work. Granted I've only read three other Dickens novels. Anyway, the more I read of Mr Dickens, the more of him I want to read. That's a good thing, right? I hope that after Our Mutual Friend I won't be disappointed by the rest of his books.

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